October had arrived, the season of typhoid, when the women and children withered as quickly as leaves on the trees. All the beds and the overflow cots on the ward where Mary Privitte worked were full, the emaciated bodies in tremors, the blues and greens and browns of the children’s eyes set like stones in their faces. For 20 hours she sat with the boy, his name already lost to her, spooning him boiled eggs and stewed fruit, combing with her fingers his sweat-matted hair and cleaning the fever sores on his mouth, before the hemorrhaging finally took him. He died that morning with his fingers curled against his cheek.
She moved now through the early afternoon along Eutaw Street toward Lexington Market, away from the hospital, drawing her cape tight to her against the autumn wind that found spaces in her shoes where the buttons had fallen away. Her back stiffened from the hours in the iron chair at the boy’s bedside, her arms sore from turning him. In the streets around her the ladies from town in their finery alighted from carriages, followed by servants carrying baskets. A fat man with blond hair and thick mustaches touched Mary’s arm. “Plump rabbits today, ma’am.” His voice boomed. “Fresh killed, twenty-five cents.” She frowned at him, pulling away from his touch, and drew off the sidewalk into the street, stepping between the drays loaded with barrels of oysters, with watermelon and lumber. Mary raised her hand to her mouth and nose against the smell of the coal oil lamps that burned for the Saturday night market. It was early, hours yet from dark. The boy’s body would still be laid out in the hospital mortuary, where she, like every nurse, followed her dead. In that tiny room with its stained-glass windows and awful silences, she washed his papery skin, wrapped him in winding sheets, and covered his blank face.
In the street children darted between the legs of horses while the poor bartered for cuts of shin and neck and tail. Along the sidewalk people shouted in her ears, offering vegetables and butchered meats. Mary could not tolerate the crowds, the press of noise, the flies still thick this late in the year. She would go home to rest, and make do without the potatoes and cabbage and soup bones for the stew she and her mother shared. Most evenings they ate together standing in the kitchen, then let their food run cold while they practiced songs together or read books in the quiet house. They had lived this way since Mary was nine and her father had died of blood poisoning.
Lately, at night, she would be awakened in her bed by the shouts of their new-married neighbors in the rowhouse next door, by the dull slam of Mrs. Dombrowski thrown against the wall. Mary was 27 now; and when she closed her eyes to hear those thumps that rattled the pots from the kitchen shelves, she thought it just as well that she would never marry, that the chance would never arise. Already the boys on the corners would whisper old maid as she walked past them toward the hospital, reaching their greasy fingers for the touch of her skirts.
As she rounded the corner at Calvert Street, a crowd of people rushed past her, men pulling their women by the elbows, mothers snatching up their children, shouting at one another to hurry or they would miss the show. Before she could turn and start toward the alley the throng drew her in like fast water, her feet nearly lifted off the bricks. Elbows jabbed into her ribs; shoulders and hands buffeted her spine and trapped her arms by her sides. She felt the tug of her skirts as children bumped into her legs. She had to force herself to breathe. Someone shoved into her hands a pamphlet, Harry Houdini: The Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist. As she slowed to read, she was butted across the back of her head by a forearm or elbow, her face smothered into the wool mackinaw of the man before her.
“Don’t,” she said. The harsh wool scratched her cheek as she fought to keep her feet beneath her. She pushed against the man to right herself, her cold face chafed and stinging. Beside her, a boy led a monkey tethered to a thin brass chain. She saw an elderly man drop his eyeglasses and reach for them as the crush of shoes and brogans took them. Discarded oyster shells broke against the paving stones beneath her feet. From the basin of Baltimore Harbor sounded the thunderclap of lumber being unloaded from ships and tossed in stacks on the docks. She focused on the sound as she gave herself up to the press of people. Strands of her hair came unpinned and fell around her face. Somewhere, she had lost her tulle cap.
The forward push of the crowd along Calvert Street slowed and then ceased, and here and there pockets of space opened. Mar)’ moved toward one of these, where men stood circled, smoking cigars. She watched them count up bets, then fasten the money with a gold clip. They asked a boy to hold the pooled money, and he stuck it away inside his cap. The boy’s face glowed with pink blotches across his cheeks. Fever, she thought, her breath catching, then realized it was only the boy’s healthiness, his excitement. Around her, fingers pointed at the afternoon sky, and everyone there, the men and ladies and children, and even the stray dogs, looked up.
From a beam atop the Fidelity Building there hung a block and tackle, a braided rope that looped through the pulleys disappearing among the hats and oiled hair of the crowd. The rope tightened and quivered, a loud “Heave-ho!” rose up, and a voice laced with Scottish accent told everyone to “stand away, clear away.” As the cadence rang out and the pulleys on the block and tackle scraped and whined, a man—Houdini, she realized—lifted up over the heads of the throng, tethered to the rope by his ankles, swaying. Mary raised her hands to her mouth. She watched this Houdini swing bound in a straightjacket, the brass buckles along his back glinting in the afternoon sun. She had seen the jackets before, men brought into the hospital chewing their tongues, shouting in spit and blood. Houdini’s face darkened, and he spoke words she could not hear as the men let him down again. When the crowd pulled back, Mary found herself to be one of those forming the circle around Houdini. She turned to look behind her toward town and saw nothing but faces; in the distance, boys and girls stood on the fenders of the automobiles.
“Now watch,” Houdini said, his voice raspy with the constriction of his lungs from the canvas and leather bindings.
“This you have not seen before,” he said. He lay on his back, the rope holding his bare feet half a yard off the pavement. As he moved, Mary heard the buckles of the straightjacket scrape the cobbles beneath him. A thick-chested man, the man with the Scottish accent, snapped his fingers in the air and a younger man with browned, gaping teeth led forth a horse pulling a small dray. On the boards of the dray steamed a large copper kettle. Using his handkerchief, the young man lifted the pot handle and poured the steaming water over the straightjacket. Mary thought back to that morning, when she had carbolized the heavy rubber sheets from the boy’s bed, her last task after every death.
“Be careful of his face, now, his legs,” the Scotsman shouted. A steam cloud rose up with the smell of boiled cotton, and the dray horse snuffled and stepped. The water hissed as it ran between the cobbles, and the canvas of the straightjacket darkened with the wetting. Somewhere behind Mary, a woman said, “That’ll shrink it right down.” The men with cigars took back their money from the boy and strengthened their bets, counting the bills aloud, writing on slips of paper. Houdini directed his Scottish helper and two other assistants to hoist him back into the air. As he rose up, people in the crowd waved hats and handkerchiefs. A shower of brass souvenir coins rained down, and boys scrambled after them, tearing the knees of their pants. A short, skinny man leaned against Mary, laughing, smelling of whiskey and tobacco. She suppressed the urge to run away.
Houdini inched up fully the height of the building, twisting on the rope like a caught fish. People shielded their eyes against the bright sky. The men who had bet withdrew and opened their pocket watches. Houdini kicked against the air and fought the jacket in spasms that rang the block pulleys. The only sound now was silence, dimpled here and there by shouted encouragements and the chattering of the monkey hidden in the crowd. Mary looked around her, all the faces lifted. By now her mother would be praying out loud, frantic that Mary had not returned from work.
Then Mary noticed the Scotsman, watching her, his eyes narrowed. She felt herself blush, like a school girl caught daydreaming. She looked away and pulled the cape tight around her, the smells of the boy on her. When she turned back, the Scotsman still watched her, not smiling, his hat tipped back on his head, his silver hair even across his forehead, his face ruddy and jowly. Though she could not stand to look at him, neither could she make herself look away. She remembered, years before, the first dawn after the night of the Great Fire, when the sun lay buried in the smeared sky. Late that morning ambulances brought in the men hurt in an explosion at the Steiff Paint factory. The nurses worked cutting off the clothes of the men where the fabric had not melted to the skin. The men cried out, naked on their stretchers. Their cut-away leather aprons and suits, bright with the greens and blues of the explosion, red with their own blood, quilted the cold floor of the emergency area. Mary knelt among the men, her stomach buckling inside her. She bandaged a man who had lost his eyes to flaming turpentine, and was beside him a week later when the doctor removed the bandages and the man ran his fingers over his face, lightly, as if brushing away rain water. He heard her there and turned to the sound of her, his face peeled, his empty sockets inflamed tissue. He took up her hand in his.
“Please tell me you’re pretty. A pretty girl,” he said. She was 17 then and had worked as a probationer for only a week, sterilizing the towels and dressings and instruments in the operating room. He nodded a little, tilting his head. His fingers were callused. He had been handsome. The doctor and head nurse smiled and nodded to her as well. She swallowed.
“No. I’m plain,” she told him. “I’m an ordinary girl.” She had dropped his hand then, she remembered, had run back upstairs to the children on her ward.
As Mary looked up, Houdini began swinging in a pendulum arc, his hair hanging down. Beneath the straightjacket he wore only a white bathing suit, the muscles in his thighs like the flanks of horses. Houdini strained and grunted, the cords in his neck thickening. His head jerked, and drops of moisture umbellated out to catch the afternoon light. As Mary began to believe he had made no progress in his escape, she saw his left arm slide further up under his armpit. He pushed again, spinning and huffing with each breath. The men with cigars tapped their pocket watches and passed around more money and shouted profanities. The Scotsman whispered into the ear of his assistant, his eyes still on her. She buried her hands in her cape. Houdini twisted and swayed, his white breath expelling in bursts. He looked in the rhythm of his struggles like some mechanical device, like the clocks her father had collected. As she watched, his elbow wrenched down across his face and his right arm pulled free.
The crowd started up its noise again and surged against her back. She heard in their words the twin hopes that he would escape and that he would not, that he would triumph from his efforts or die from them, dangling and spinning. She thought of the worst sound she’d heard in the hospital, at night on the women’s ward during typhoid season, when the delirious asked for water they could not keep down by banging on their nightstands with tin cups. Banging until they wore down and gave up.
The sun pushed shadows from the scaffolded buildings surrounding the street, the repairs to the city ongoing still, ten years after the Great Fire. Houdini shouted as his other arm wrenched loose. He pulled with his teeth at the leather straps along his fists. His arms loosed from one another and the shouts in the crowd began to rise. Reaching behind he unclasped two of the buckles along his spine, pinching them through the stiff canvas. He swung out over the crowd, nearly hitting the Fidelity Building on backswings. He twisted once inside the straightjacket, and again, then the jacket pulled down off his shoulders and he was free of it, holding it by its sleeve and waving it at the crowd. The noise of the people rose up beyond hearing, the roar like water against her eardrums. Someone threw a bouquet of flowers; cap pistols popped, making the dogs bark. Houdini extended his arms and took his bow upside down in the air.
The circle pushed back as the assistants lowered Houdini to the cobbles and the men with cigars handed money around, wetting their fingers to count it. The crowd gathered tightly, straining to see, and the Scotsman shouted for his assistants to keep everyone back. Then Houdini leapt atop the dray, resting his bare foot on the handle of the copper kettle, and he tossed the straightjacket to the reporters standing about with their notebooks and flash cameras. He wore no shirt, only the white cotton bathing suit, and in the cold his skin puckered and turned red in blotches along his legs. His chest and shoulders had bruised from his struggle with the straightjacket, some of the bruises as wide as hands. Out of breath, he invited the reporters to inspect the jacket, to come collect a thousand dollar reward if they found anything amiss. The cheers eased away and the people applauded now as if at the theatre, the boys jumping from the fenders of cars, some of the women crying. Without meaning to, Mary found herself applauding as well. Houdini shouted for all to return in two hours, a block away at water’s edge where he would “challenge the icy depths of the harbor.” Mary looked for the Scotsman, but he was gone.
The crowd shifted against one another and pressed toward Eutaw and Pratt streets, jostling her, milling about as if they did not know where to go, as if they had no homes or businesses to return to. She thought back to the cold night in February, ten years ago, when she had opened a curtain on E ward, thinking she heard ambulance bells, and had seen instead a spotted horse careening down the street dragging a milk wagon, the wagon riderless, milk jugs spilling on the pavement. In the next minute the streets filled with the noise of explosions and fire wagons, of window glass raining from the buildings downtown. All that night the flames spread, and people pressed into the streets in the freezing weather, standing behind the firelines the police had strung, the mist from the hoses freezing to ice on the power lines overhead, in the mustaches and fur collars of the watchers. The fire became a show, everyone cheering the blasting of dynamite or the extinguishing of small blazes, until from everywhere the smoke ran down in thick clouds like cable cars through the streets, and people moved to get away from it and there was no getting away. By morning of the third day the city smouldered, the skipjacks and steamers in the wharves bobbing in six inches of soot and ash as if thrown adrift in fields of dirty snow. Mary worked with the nurses and other probationers for three days straight, hearing stories the ambulance drivers told. One man, sitting at his desk in his office, had swallowed water from the fire hoses and drowned. A mother and child were found fused by the heat. In the days that followed the fire, people of the city had roamed the streets, looking over the ruin, watching the smouldering ash.
Mary walked quickly along South Street. As she found a pathway out of the milling crowd, a young man fell into step beside her and pressed his hand at the small of her back. She grabbed his arm to push him away.
“We’ll need your help, miss. Over here.” She thought that someone in the movement of the crowd had been injured and now required medical attention, but he steered her away from the crowd, down a narrow alley.
She stopped and jerked away from him. “What kind of help exactly?” she said.”Who are you?” She looked into his face and recognized him as one of Houdini’s assistants, the one with the ruined teeth. She guessed him to be close to her own age.
“We just need you,” he said, his eyes darting about.
He directed her into the lobby of the Altamont Hotel. The silence and solitude of the hotel grew like a dream pulled out of the dissipating crowd. She hesitated then, in the lobby, and the young man touched the small of her back again and the heat rose in her face. He inclined his head toward her, speaking in a whisper.
“Very important, miss. Please.” What he had to tell her or show her seemed a burden to him, a weight across his skinny shoulders, and she thought at once that Houdini must have died from his escape, that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage or a poison in the blood. They arrived at the door of a room on the second floor.
When Mary stepped into the room, Houdini sat on a brocade couch, taking sips from a tiny cup. Next to him sat the Scotsman, trimming a cigar with his knife. Houdini wore a heavy white bathrobe belted tightly around him. He stood and smiled and bowed to her a little. His eyes were the color of pewter, his lips thick and feminine, his nose sharp and angular, like some instrument for cutting.
“Please, sit with us for a moment.” His voice came high, laced with a slight accent; she noticed now how small he was, how muscular in his neck and face. The Scotsman did not look at her.
“Mr. Houdini, I thought. . . .”
He held up his hand, brown with calluses. “Call me Ehrich.”
“You’re not hurt?”
At this the Scotsman laughed out loud and lit his cigar with a match he struck against his boot sole. He threw the match into a green glass ashtray.
“No, I’m not hurt. But, as the young man said, I do need your assistance.” The three men watched her.
“How?” she said.
He explained that in the next hour he would arrive at the harbor, that the local constable would strip him, search him, and shackle him. He would be placed in a bag made of sailcloth drawn by chains. The bag would be nailed shut inside a shipping crate and the crate laced with anchor chains and heavy padlocks.
“Then,” he said, “they lower me into the water.” He smiled. “You won’t see me for a while.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think it’s clever, what you do. I think it’s foolishness.”
The Scotsman spoke up. “Last night, we saw a fine turning out at the Odeon Theatre. Watermen were there with a challenge escape.” He puffed on his cigar. His words seemed directed at no one in particular.
“They bring out this sea monster, a giant octopus or a squid, I’m not sure. Bigger than a man, preserved in an ice box, a formaldehyde bath. They slit this monster open, push Houdini inside, sew the thing with piano wire. Two hours that escape. The preserving fumes nearly killed Houdini by the end.”
He turned his cigar, studying the lengthening ash. “Before that,” he said, “a zinc-lined piano box, an iron boiler, a milk can filled with water, an enormous leather football laced by experts.” He looked at her.”Defying death, missy, is no foolishness.”
She started to speak and Houdini took her hand.
“I can get out of the box, yes. But I’ll need a key, for the manacles. Not even a key, really. A length of watch spring. A lockpick. Almost nothing.”
She thought of what he would put himself through, the utter darkness, the cold, the brackish water rising in the box.
“But the nails on the box, the chains. Why do you risk your life this way?”
He smiled at her, his lips tight and shiny as the skin on a fruit. “A tiny lockpick,” he said.”Everything will be okay. No more than one of your hair pins.”
She pushed away the hair that had fallen around her face. Houdini held his hands together, like a child at prayers.
“You’ll help me?” he said.
“How would I help you?”
“You must give me the key. So no one sees it, after I’ve been searched.”
“What’s to keep anyone from seeing it?”
The Scotsman laughed, and the ash on his cigar broke off and fell across his vest. Houdini took her hand again.
“Before they lower me to the water, I’ll be allowed a kiss from a pretty girl, for good luck.” He looked at her.”The key will be inside your mouth.”
She yanked her hand away and stood, her face burning with the blood that pounded in her ears. She smoothed out the folds of her cape and her blue uniform, the patterns of the rugs beneath her feet blurring in her vision. She shook, hearing those words: pretty girl.
“I don’t need to be here,” she said. She turned to leave, and the Scotsman grabbed her above the elbow, squeezing her arm.
“For chrissakes, girl, we need one kiss from you. It’s not as if we’re asking you to—”
“Let her go.” Houdini raised his voice and stood. The Scotsman chewed his cigar and walked across the room, his smoke drifting behind him.
“Let me explain further,” Houdini said.
Mary looked at the part in his wiry hair, the creases around his mouth and neck. His carotid artery fluttered in a fold of skin, beneath a patch of whiskers he had missed shaving. Mary’s eyes watered as heat spread across the back of her neck.
He reached out his hand. “Nothing more than this,” he said. On his palm was an inch-long length of flattened clock spring, filed to a tear-drop shape. In her hand it felt cool, the metal shiny and bluish with tempering. She shook her head. Houdini reached as if to take her arms, then drew back. She saw him glance at the Scotsman.
“I have a reputation,” Houdini said. “If you don’t do this, if they find the lockpick on me, I’ll be nailed in the box without the key. I will go in the water.”
His gray eyes looked steady on her. They were eyes she’d seen before, eyes she knew as if from a dream. She started to speak, to hand back to him the length of spring. She remembered his eyes, the man touching his face as if to wipe away the rain, remembered imagining how they would look. They were these pewter eyes, Houdini’s, as if he had stolen them to descend into the cold water and to see with them the blackness of the void, to bury their seeing forever in that box, to give them up to reputation, to the absence of a tiny key.
He showed her where to place the lockpick in her mouth, holding her chin and tipping her face toward the mirror. She let him, feeling him reach in like a dentist to touch her teeth and her gumline, the roof of her mouth. When the key was positioned, he told her to close her lips and smile. He examined her face.
“Relax the muscles here,” he said, tapping her jaw. She thought of the doctors in the operating room, guiding her hands to clamp a cut blood vessel. When she had made herself relax, Houdini bent and pressed his mouth against hers, and his tongue lifted the key from her. His lips, cold and dry, tasted of metal.
“Everything just as I showed you,” he said. “Don’t change anything.”
In the last hours of light Mary walked through the streets near the wharves, practicing again and again the placement of the lockpick in her mouth, believing she had forgotten everything he had shown her. From the top of Camden Street she watched as the crowds came out, drawing together on the wharves where market boats and paddle steamers sat docked, awaiting passengers and freight. Mary made her way through the crowds, the lockpick held tight in her mouth. Around the watermarks of the boats floated straw and rough boards and fish with their eyes whited and half eaten away by the gulls. The smell of the fish mixed with that of oil drifted shiny along the surface of the harbor. The gulls screamed and hovered on the wind.
The block and tackle had been rigged from one of the bollards at the end of the pier. The crate, thick and knotty, sat open, the hoisting cable and anchor chains curled on the dock planks behind it. A mule stood with its head hanging, the cable that would hoist the crate fastened to its saddle. Police erected barricades at the water’s edge, so that no one would be pushed in by the force of the crowd.
Mary drew her cape around her, her hands bunched inside the folds of cloth. Twice the Scotsman came around and told her and the others standing near her to step back, not looking at her. The lockpick pressed into her cheek. It tasted of copper pennies, of sewing pins held in her mouth. She thought of her mother, watching for her through the curtains. She tried to think about the boy, tried remembering him, and saw his cracked lips, the rise of his ribcage, but not him, not his face. He might have had a tooth missing, but she couldn’t remember.
The kiss would be short, as Houdini had shown her, so as not to raise any suspicion. He had told her she must not let the lockpick move, she must keep it secure inside her cheek. He would kiss her and that would be their only chance. It would not last and could not be repeated. He would enter the box. The water would take him. Wind lifted the edges of her hair and drew a chill down her spine. She dared not swallow. Her mouth filled with saliva like the beginnings of nausea. She clamped down on the wire with the muscles of her face and tasted her own blood.
A fringed carriage drew through the crowd, opening a space in front of it that pulled in closed behind it. The carriage stopped and Houdini stepped out and waved to the crowd. A cheer went up and he nodded slowly without smiling. He wore a gray suit with a vest and a necktie, a stiff new collar.
A police sergeant stepped from the carriage behind Houdini, the brass buttons on his uniform tracing the curve of his stomach. He withdrew from the carriage a worn leather satchel, opened it, and lifted out with both hands a tangle of steel chains, handcuffs, leg irons, and padlocks. He shook them in the air, shouting to attest that he had inspected the manacles and found them to be unaltered in any way. The manacles clanked in his fist.
Mary touched her face where the lockpick lay hidden. The muscles of her cheeks and jaws quivered and had numbed so that she could no longer feel the lockpick there. As she reached with her tongue to touch it, the pick slid atop her tongue. The taste of metal bloomed in her throat, gagging her. She nearly spat the wire out on the ground.
A committee of volunteers stepped forward to reinspect the shackles and to strip Houdini of his clothes. He removed his shoes and socks, his necktie and collar, his shirt and undervest. The men searched the spaces between his fingers, ran their hands through his hair, held matches near his ears and nostrils. They lifted his arms to search his armpits. One of the men put his fingers inside Houdini’s mouth.
Mary used her tongue to push the wire back into the side of her cheek. For a moment she thought she had turned it, the point of it now directed at the back of her throat, but then she was unsure. She wanted to reach into her mouth to reposition it with her fingers, but of course she could not. Don’t direct any attention to yourself, the Scotsman had told her.
The committee instructed Houdini to remove his trousers. Beneath them he wore only a tight breechcloth of thin white cotton. He stood hairless and pale, his muscles carving shadow in his skin. She saw through the thin fabric of the breechcloth his outline, distinct and full. She remembered the naked men in the emergency area after the paint factory explosion, remembered blushing as she moved among them, a girl of seventeen. She thought of the parents of the dead children, how they accepted their grief as if embarrassed by it, how they never touched. Throughout the crowd women turned away as Houdini stripped. The wire bit into the side of her mouth.
Several of the men held up a section of canvas as a screen, and a doctor was brought forth to complete the inspection. The men drew away the canvas and began to shackle Houdini. They locked his elbows with cuffs connected by a steel bar running across the middle of his back. Three sets of iron bands linked his wrists, joined by padlocks and chains to similar bands clamped around his ankles. Houdini raised his head as a heavy iron collar was hinged around his throat and padlocked at the back of his neck, the chains on the lock connected to those at his wrists. All of these were woven through with more chains, secured with padlocks.
They directed him to the crate, a man on either side of him. He walked with tiny steps, slightly bent like an old man, the chains dragging on the wood planks behind him. Mary shifted her weight and the wetness in her mouth ran to the back of her throat and she swallowed. For a minute she could not feel the wire and imagined she had swallowed it as well. Her mouth was numb. When she took a breath through her lips, the wire cooled at the back of her mouth. Houdini was lifted into the crate, the canvas bag pulled up to his neck and held there. The Scotsman poured brandy into a snifter and held it to Houdini’s lips, shouting out words she only half heard. The life of a man. The hand of God. The watery depths. He had an actor’s voice, loud and stagey. He would not look in her direction. She pushed the wire against the roof of her mouth to reposition it, and felt her heart beating in her temples, in her stomach. She wanted to let herself cry, to leave and forget all of this. The wire turned again and she pushed it forward, unable to remember where it had been when he had placed it in her mouth back at the hotel room.
“Some young lass,” the Scotsman shouted. He extended his arms to the crowd.”One kiss, for fortune’s smile.” Her face burned and she stepped forward out of the crowd. The movement of the boats docked at the pier made her feel as if the world were in motion beneath her. Her legs quivered. Houdini stood with his gaze fixed out over the heads of the crowd. She knew that already he was at work, twisting his hands inside the canvas bag, positioning them. The Scotsman lightly held her fingers and brought her to the front of the crate as if leading her through a waltz.
The key was now only a coppery sourness in her mouth. Houdini looked at her, no flicker of recognition in his face. She leaned toward him, not knowing what to do with her hands. She wanted to touch him, to steady herself against him, to keep herself from falling. His face came up to hers and she smelled on him the sweetness of the brandy. Then his lips touched hers and she felt the sting of his whiskers, the dryness of her lips, the push of his jaw downward and her own pushed with it. His tongue ran between her lips, moving across her teeth. She parted her teeth slightly, then opened her mouth, and somewhere behind her the shouts of the crowd mixed with those of the Scotsman saying “maybe his last, maybe his last,” and with her eyes closed her hands moved in the empty air, reaching toward him, and her fingertips brushed the canvas bag, the muscles of his face worked against hers and then his tongue slid fully into her mouth. A shuddering passed through her. Already too much time had passed, must have passed. They would know, she thought, and she angled her face slightly upward, tilting her throat, and inside her mouth she felt his tongue thicken and flatten, his saliva warmer than hers at the back of her throat. The key floated somewhere between them, the taste of it rising into her sinuses. She opened her eyes briefly and saw his gray eyes open and stilled in concentration. She closed her eyes again, and then the wind blew cool at the edges of her mouth, Houdini was shouting to the crowd that he would be allowed only twenty minutes, that the oxygen inside the crate, would be depleted in three.
The Scotsman drew her back to the edge of the crowd. She watched Houdini wave to the crowd and smile at her, but it was a smile for the crowd; it told her nothing. The canvas bag was lifted up over him and his face disappeared from sight, his outline shifting and bobbing under the canvas. She imagined him in the bag, reaching with his fingers to withdraw the key, working already at the locks as the men chained shut the bag and folded it—him—into the crate. The box lid fell down and then the hammers sounded in the moist air, six of them pounding a strange, short song, like a children’s song. The chains drew up the crate, the mule strained, and the box lifted and spun in the air. The men pushed it over the side of the pier and the crowd pressed forward to watch. It hit the water and bobbed, tilting slightly before it began to sink. The Scotsman withdrew his watch and began to count in quarter minutes, shouting, holding his watch up to the crowd. The crate fell fully out of sight in the black water, tiny waves splitting white around the cable. Mary leaned out to see, the press of thousands at her back. Still in her mouth were the sweetness of the brandy, the sourness of the key. She closed her eyes to imagine his frantic work in the blackness, in the failing air, the crate buried in cold, the warmth at its center, his warmth, his beating heart. The Scotsman sounded the minutes. She swallowed, tasting him. Don’t die, she whispered.